Anyone who has ever been in debt and had trouble meeting payments will know just how unusual this story is. When CFS2 agents call people with unpaid, and unpayable, debts, they ask a life-changing question, “How can I help?” In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the collection company founded by Bill Bartmann is making 200% more than its competitors by offering free services to help people get back on their feet.
Bartmann knows from personal experience how easy it is to fall into a hole that is hard to climb out of. In his autobiography, Bouncing Back, he tells the story of growing up in deep poverty, becoming an alcoholic and a gang member by the time he was 17, and learning to walk again after a drunken fall left him paralyzed.
He worked his way out of the hole of his early years and built a company that manufactured pipes for oil rigs, Hawkeye Pipe Services Inc. When the OPEC cartel took a nosedive in 1985, sales dropped from $1 million in July to zero in August. He had to lay off all his employees and liquidate the company’s assets. That left him owing $1 million to creditors.
Rather than declare bankruptcy, Bartmann was determined to pay back the entire debt, no matter how long it took. A 1997 article by Jerry Useem in Inc. relates just how hard that was. With debt collectors hounding him and friends disappearing, Bartmann and Jay Jones, his former chief of operations, took a shot so long it seemed absurd. They decided to bid on a batch of delinquent loans from a Tulsa bank that had gone under. Useem describes it:
As if to emphasize the absurd nature of their mission, only one other bidder showed up at the auction. Some 200 portfolios of bad loans were for sale, ranging from the mildly delinquent to the long-since-considered-unredeemable. Bartmann began inspecting the latter. ‘They were the double-uglies,’ says Jones, ‘the bottom-of-the-bucket kind of loans,’ and were therefore the cheapest. As Bartmann perused the files he saw the collectors’ records of their unsuccessful efforts: ‘This deadbeat won’t pay, he says go to hell.’ And then it struck him: ‘I realized, This is me.’
They paid 2¢ on the dollar and launched Commercial Financial Services Inc., with $13,000 in start-up money loaned to Bartmann by the American Bank of Muskogee. It was already holding his $1 million debt but decided to gamble on him. He got on the phone, collected $64,000, paid his debt and persuaded the bank to loan him $100,000 so he could buy more debt. He kept doing that as he worked his way up to becoming one of the richest men in America.
Then in 1998 an anonymous letter from a disgruntled employee set in motion legal procedures that ended up in liquidation of the company and laying off its 3900+ employees before Bartmann was cleared of all wrongdoing in 2005.
Once again he worked his way out of a deep hole, and in July 2010 he resurrected his company as CFS2. This time he added a suite of free services to his debt-collection business.
Reasoning that it is easier to collect money from people who have it, he offers assistance with debt consolidation, the labyrinth of government assistance (for such things as housing, food, medicine, transportation and child care), and job hunting (including resume writing, posting the resumes, matching skills with jobs, scheduling interviews and even doing interview coaching). The CFS2 Web site shares some of the company’s success stories as well as testimonials from customers grateful to have been treated with compassion and dignity.
When the U.S. House of Representatives shut down the government in October 2013, CFS2 phoned creditors of those furloughed, convincing most of them to allow workers a grace period for paying their bills. They did the same thing in the wake of tornadoes. Bartmann has also launched an initiative, Stop These Criminals, to try to reform the debt-collection industry.
The combination of crushing debt and hard times can rob anyone of dignity. Bartmann, who has been there himself, understands what people need to get back on their feet. He gives me hope.
Steve Hartman of CBS’s On the Road did a story about one happy customer: